“I like the silent church before the service begins,
better than any preaching.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
better than any preaching.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“These people think they have problems? I have a fucking brain tumor. I have a problem.”
Ann McDonald choked back an embarrassing hoot. She turned to her friend, wide-eyed, and ignored passive frowns in a gathering of the self-possessed. Stéphanie’s stage whisper, like her personality, belied the assault. It left you with an incomprehensible reaction to a mangled pile of wounded disposition. Ann never got used to the shock every jeremiad landed on the unsuspecting receiver.
Moving closer to her agitated friend, Ann asked quietly: “Do you want to leave?”
Stéphanie Gayle stared eerily from her good eye and nodded. The black eye patch, a recent change, was off putting.
“You sure?” Ann whispered conspiratorially. “The snacks might not be out yet.”
After a decade long friendship Ann finally understood Stéphanie’s incentive. She ripped through life indisputably brave. Only, she tore holes in her own fabric, and then punched the life out of the passenger side air bag. It was suicide by degrees. In a light-filled, simply yet elegantly appointed room overseen by contemplative bronze statues, its walls hung with small yellow flags and turquoise valances above pristine altars, and crowded with seekers of enlightenment perched cross-legged and straight-backed on dark blue pillows set across a polished blonde wood floor, hearing her say fucking brain tumor made it seem somehow deliciously profane.
They left the room of devotees before the mallet struck the singing bowl, before another whiney testament to an unfulfilled life could be uttered by anyone else in the room unhappy in love, work, money and whatever else impeded their noble path.
Ann bowed hurriedly. Stéphanie barreled past to the empty reception area. Acolytes had placed bowls of beige comfort dip on long cloth-covered folding tables. Grapes—purple and green—filled brightly colored plastic bowls. Yellow and white cheese cubes were stacked on paper plates alongside baskets of low-sodium chips and gluten-free crackers.
Food, notably free food, halted Stéphanie’s furious exit. She ignored the hummus and expertly filled stick-less bindles with crackers and cheese and grapes. She gathered up the corners of the bulging paper napkins and shoved them into her commodious handbag. They passed the fish bowl of donations Stéphanie had ostentatiously overlooked upon arrival. Ignoring the scrutiny of a student volunteer, Ann dropped a generous wad of bills she could hardly afford.
Oppressive heat stunned them at street level. The drift of jasmine off slender joss sticks gave way to the sour, sweat-stained remains of the day.
Ann reconsidered their escape from the air-conditioned loft. They stood for a moment on a quieter midtown street of faceless loft buildings and silhouetted skyscrapers that left the pavement scored with lengthening shadows. Their bare arms were already skimmed with sweat. Ann looked up the block toward Sixth Avenue, unsure.
They’d dodged a bullet. Again. Though they had some things in common, Ann was aware of her friend’s quirks. Their differences were lodged like detritus in the turns of a fast moving river.
Stephanie’s parents had gifted their daughter with a flawless fawn complexion and charcoal colored hair that curled into soft ringlets now veined with silver. She had her mother’s animated inquisitive eyes, a flair for unusual jewelry. She was blessed with her mother’s gap toothed smile; small, perfectly white teeth marked with that tiny dark door to her soul men longed to go through, ignoring the obvious consequences that had kept Stéphanie single.
She was a graduate of a liberal arts college sprung from a decidedly white hamlet nestled above the Hudson River. College life had been her challenge, she being the only black student in her class. She rose to it and in addition to her academic and professional achievements she’d expanded her personal war with the world.
Turmoil was borne from a childhood of misplaced responsibility and implied deprivation. Her mother was a dark-skinned beauty both elegant and distant and who rarely stepped beyond her world of creative eccentrics. She was adamantly black; Nina Simone black. The company of artists, musicians, politicians and judges whom she dazzled reflected that. For her entire life, Stéphanie’s mother managed a capricious reality. When forced to, she fell back on substitute teaching in the public schools. Sales of her art funded her travels, her jewelry, and a dash in any direction away from motherhood until she’d had to rely on her daughter’s generosity in the years before she died.
From what Ann knew, Stéphanie’s father had fully deserted them when Stéphanie had just turned eight. After years on the road as a musician, with only sporadic touchdowns to their upper west side apartment in Manhattan, he’d finally bolted. He returned with his sax to Paris, to an urbane world of jazz and French women who reflected his upbringing and divined his needs. They replaced the alabaster arms of a patrician mother who had tucked him in at night as a boy, and then left his snowy bed linen, his freshly ironed embroidered pillow, and his downy cheek scented with her perfume. He’d abandoned his irrevocably aggrieved daughter to her younger brother who’d paid for her daytime rages and tearful nightmares while their child-like mother enlivened her circle and left mothering to Stéphanie.
Ann was a good ten years older than Stéphanie, but Ann was married long and happily to a working musician. In Stéphanie’s words: “A bit too married.” An only child, her upbringing had none of the drama of her friend’s story. Her parents had lived weary indifferent lives in pointless persistence. Her education was obligatory as it would be for the financially challenged who had a blinkered worldview and just were not that interested in Ann’s future. Her mother had struggled with depression and the shame of it that since might have been elevated to some acceptability by a named disorder like bi-polar or manic-depressive. Her father escaped through the back door alcoholics think will give them a way out.
Ann left Astoria where she’d grown up in the projects. She’d formed a habit of journal keeping she would sometimes let lapse but would never break. What she saw in the mirror was of her own making until she’d reached the age when a daughter is fundamentally recast in her mother’s image. Hers was the mongrel mix of German and Irish women, with a waist that thickened of its own accord, whose fair skin sunburned too quickly, whose blonde-gone-brown hair was graying slightly and, at her husband’s insistence, was left untouched. Not so the chin hairs that she plucked assiduously.
The bigger difference though, was that one had a brain tumor. The other did not.
“Why can’t I have a fucking—what’s the one that kills you quick?”
Ann readied for the surge. “What are you talking about, Stéphanie?” she asked evenly.
“You know,” Stéphanie wailed. “What’s its name? Fucking butterfly tumor, a year at the most.” She pressed a forefinger to her brow. “Boom! I’m dead.”
A passerby slowed his pace and held back for a split second. He darted ahead, avoiding eye contact.
Stéphanie recognized flight. “What the fuck is his problem?” she snapped loudly. She raised a hand, ringed on every finger, and readied a punch at the fleeing man. Ann knew what was coming. She could have said the tumor you have will kill you, eventually. Twelve years of suffering, possibly longer, was a very long eventuality. Gently, but deliberately, Ann pushed her into an unlit doorway before the light of the corner bookstore giant left them cruelly exposed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Ann urged. “Breathe.”
“It does matter,” Stéphanie whimpered, now dazed and slack jawed. Flustered, she rummaged distractedly in her handbag, shredding paper napkins like she was building a nest. “I forgot the name—.”
“Of what?” Ann urged.
“The other one…” Stéphanie said, drifting, and then looked up from the opened bag. Relief purged the hard lines. “Bilateral Glioblastoma Multiforme,” she gasped, clutching a grape webbed in bits of torn napkin. “The butterfly tumor.”
Ann had seen the glazed looks, dropped jaws. She’d heard involuntary yelps on the occasions when Stéphanie had let rip in public. Waiters, taxi drivers, theater ushers, shopkeepers suffered her outbursts. Strangers who brushed against her unawares, or strode in the wrong direction down a city street, suffered a swift thumping. Children were reprimanded in public to sit straight, their pocket-sized shoes forcibly prodded from the subway seat. A too long wait at a red light released a barrage of insults to the back of a cabbie’s head. In any public gathering Stéphanie found someone in the wrong shoes, maybe an unflattering fashion faux pas; someone who failed her rigid ideal, and then, sotto voce, she’d announce: “She looks like she fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.”
Ann caught the eye of the injured party in every instance of street shoving, taxi rants, and predictably angry reactions from parents, and staved off confrontation with a raised eyebrow, a knowing grimace, and a hastened withdrawal, never forgetting the words of Stéphanie’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Son: “These tumors may have been present at birth.”
At birth. A tumor so tiny as to be invisible, yet making its presence known in unusually angry outbursts as a child, followed by teenage years that left school chums perplexed when her acutely vivacious nature suddenly turned stubbornly sour. As an attractive, whip smart young woman, she’d endured advice from friends who claimed her Achilles heel was her choice of men, or rather, how she handled them once she had chosen them.
Stéphanie’s family gathered at the hospital after each surgery, fussily apprehensive. They were her extended maternal side. Aunts and cousins, nieces and nephews, crowded into the visitors lounge and each time Ann was reintroduced as if for the first time. They never spoke of anything in particular from what Ann could tell. Some prayed. Politics never entered the fray until Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which coincided with Stéphanie’s last operation. Two-by-two they paraded in and out of Stéphanie’s room, each with a tale to tell of her bravery, her recovery, and of her anger. Invariably one of them returned, head shaking and whispering of an “…unholy shit fit in there.”
Stéphanie’s brother was a self-described black sheep. He was a delicate version of Stéphanie, a father of three. Despite her description, he had none of the “little devil” about him. He never called her Steph and he never forgot to write her name with the accent she demanded. He quailed, like others, when he’d incurred her wrath over some minor offense. Mostly, he just stayed away.
Friends seemingly dropped away like inexperienced, unsuspecting climbers negotiating an avalanche prone mountain face. The few Ann had met were nearly always in passing. “They have all deserted me,” Stéphanie cried when Ann inquired.
Unflappable therapists and surgeons and Stéphanie’s neuro oncologist, Dr. Hunter, were prepared for extremes. However, they saw only the docile childlike behavior, her eagerness to be a good girl for them and perhaps be rewarded with life. She was at the best of times what most would call emotionally reserved. Still, she insisted on an awkward fumbled embrace with her specialists at the start of every meeting.
“Whatever. I’ll ride up the west side with you,” Ann offered. “Take the crosstown home.”
Stéphanie gripped Ann’s arm and they headed west on 22nd Street toward the multifarious outdoor cafes clogging Eighth Avenue. Ann steered her friend unflinchingly through hurriedly indifferent Chelsea crowds. She ran interference among workers preoccupied with loosening the harness in brief retirement at the bottom of a frosty margarita glass. A taxi was out of the question. Small spaces were combustible. They made a careful ascent at the bus stop. It would mean a longer, slower route for Ann, but her husband would understand. Ann dipped her MetroCard twice, circumventing the now tiresome and embarrassing drama of Stéphanie’s lost card. If she had the energy she’d walk from Stéphanie’s building on 89th Street to her apartment on East 95th Street. Traversing Central Park proved a reliable path to the respite that greeted Ann at home.
They’d discovered when they’d met in Paris ten years ago that both women worked in magazine publishing and lived, literally, across the park from each other. Like Ann, Stéphanie was a native New Yorker. A French writer Ann had known for years, and whom Stéphanie had met more recently in New York, had introduced them. Both confessed to a secret writer’s life; Ann for her journal and short stories, Stéphanie for a screenplay she was writing. Ann liked Stéphanie though she’d found her a bit bossy, a bit snobbish. Her intellect sliced through a conversation like a hard flung cleaver and straight away separated the meat from the bone. You had to be on your toes and Ann appreciated a challenge. Then, Stéphanie laughed girlishly. She was small-boned and had the grace of a guarded dancer. So unlike the scowling, bloated, listing figure she’d become.
Ann was self-taught, a discriminating reader with a voracious appetite. She loved to travel. Any insecurity due to a rudimentary education was kept well below the radar for the most part, made up by a curious open intelligence. She’d learned to type in high school and the tedious dictum had proved true: You’d never want for a job if you could type.
She’d found her niche with a small newspaper publisher in a loft in Chelsea. She knocked out community news stories for weeklies on the newfangled Compugraphic machines. She paid attention to fledgling journalists and the frenetic language of deadlines, regularly contributing last minute captions and sidebars when the flagging writers had hit a wall.
Ann didn’t mind the coke-fueled verbal antics. She could outshout the best of them. Late hours and grueling deadlines left her unfazed. She was reminded of Kerouac’s famous scroll when she’d processed the punched tape into another machine and watched it unfurl in long galleys as readable copy she’d hand over to the art department. She fell in with a blustering soft-bodied editor with a sharp intellect and a huge appetite for alcohol. He relished playing Svengali and encouraged her writing.
Long hours of typesetting and proofreading, though, had chipped away Ann’s knack for reading anywhere. She’d no longer open a book on the subway. If she managed to scan a few pages in the wee hours of her return she was guaranteed the sound of the book hitting the floor would send her bolt upright in unexpected daylight. Writing stopped. The Smith Corona lay untouched on the kitchen table.
Ann was drawn to the paper cut banter of overworked, underpaid designers and paste-up artists, every one indifferent of a freelance disguise: painters, actors, performance artists, writers. They knew who they were at the end of an interminable day. She liked the tools of that trade: burnishers, rollers, proportion wheels. Little by little she’d gravitated across the warped plank wood floor of the Chelsea loft to the intoxicating smell of hot wax, the decisive cut of an X-acto knife drawn around galleys and veloxes, and the lofty determination in placing elements on the page.
When her editor left for a rival publication on the upper eastside she went with him. Camouflaging inexperience with goodwill, she’d bluffed her way into another community newspaper at his behest. He wanted Ann’s company and he’d favored her with covert on the job training. She reconfigured as a mechanical artist.
Over the years, purely by happenstance, she’d transformed into a highly paid senior graphic designer at a French-owned publishing company. Stéphanie, on the other hand, had forged a relentlessly aggressive path toward her top-ranked position as copy chief at a multinational media corporation. Still, Stéphanie was dissatisfied. She exhibited an unquenchable need for something that she never seemed able to attain.
After a few years Stéphanie stopped talking about her screenplay and dismissed Ann’s inquiries. Ann never quite abandoned her dream of a writer’s life. She’d continued to keep a journal and wrote short stories. Apart from a few friends, she’d kept that mostly to herself.
Encouraged by her husband, Ann had applied to workshops, but was put off by what she felt rattled her cage. She liked her private unbothered escape into writing. She had friends who encouraged her, calling her a natural writer. Stéphanie had read some of Ann’s stories. Though she was patronizing, she was unwilling to contradict their mutual friend in Paris. Stéphanie, too, remarked that Ann was a natural writer, but followed that with sly offhand remarks, “…for someone who never actually studied. You have something, I’m not sure what.” She persisted in criticizing Ann’s stories for length, telling her she aimed too high in reading the likes of Virginia Woolf, for example. And she hated the novels of Anita Brookner, a contemporary favorite of Ann’s. “Too depressing, all those boring stories about single women. Try to write like David Sedaris,” she’d urged. “You know, keep it light.”
Stéphanie’s call to Ann’s office had been unexpected. They had only just met. Both knew the demands of the job left little time for social calls at work. Ann was swamped on a regular basis, meeting deadlines, juggling photographers, freelancers, and editors. An impatient managing editor was bivouacked in her office, armed with layouts of health spas, E-Z dessert recipes, knitting how-tos—all aimed at the kind of woman Ann was not.
“Ann MacDonald here,” she’d snapped. When Stéphanie asked if it was a bad time the usual conceit was not in evidence. The tone of her voice had given Ann pause. She waved off the managing editor. “What’s up Stéph?”
Hastening to correct her slip—Stéphanie did not tolerate nicknames—a feeble response cut her off: “It’s back.”
The bus was summer empty. It was past rush hour and they settled into seats generally reserved for the handicapped. Stéphanie stared ahead blankly. Ann recalled that phone call as if it was yesterday and not ten years ago. How her stomach had seized when she’d been told about the tumor; how Stéphanie had rebounded from the first surgery and rewarded herself with Paris. How Stéphanie felt they had always known each other. It was the first time Ann heard those words: benign meningioma. It would not be the last.
They rode in silence. The subject that evening was Staying In the Moment. How could Stéphanie be expected to stay in the moment? They had not been spared the terrible eventuality. Her surgeon—top in his field—would not risk another operation, not even by gamma knife, and directed Stéphanie to a clinical trials program. Dr. Hunter, a petite child-like waif dressed in adult designer clothes, with the wisecracking humor of Woody Allen and the warrior stance of a pint-sized Amazon, pushed for radical experimentation. Meningiomas were tough nuts, she said. Another doctor protested. The drugs had no successful track record. The side effects were potentially horrendous. Again and again they were reminded: This was not cancer. Cancer was easier. Both knew what was to come.
Stéphanie, now sunk into partialness, deserted by the fulgurant rage that drove her, stared ahead as the bus headed uptown on Amsterdam Avenue. Ann searched for an opening to lighten the mood. “It was a good talk, though, right? Baker’s always got something to say. Funny, kind of dry humor?”
“Fuck that. Fuck enlightenment,” Stéphanie retorted under her breath. “Fuck God.”
Shambhala was out of the question now. They had come to the Tuesday night dharma gatherings, as they were called, by circumstance. Circumstance was the stubborn benign, yet recurring, tumor crowding Stéphanie’s brain. It was Stéphanie’s invitation and Ann’s response to that exigent tumor that had forged a curious friendship. Stéphanie’s tumor was for some time the elephant in their friendship. Eventually Ann had come to know every inch of that elephant; the toughness of its hide, how its eyes narrowed when disturbed and then rampaged with tusks bared. Some meningioma, like Stéphanie’s interloper, disables at a deceptively moderate pace, a serial killer with limitless patience. It smothered normalcy in barely perceptible degrees of antisocial behavior that infuriated strangers and left friends and family aghast and wary. It was far from benign.
The call to her office marked the beginning of Ann’s quotidian role. Without actually noticing, Ann became Stéphanie’s advocate. She waited with her in claustrophobic anterooms for countless MRIs, sat in on innumerable meetings with brain surgeons and held her hand after every surgery that disfigured her face by degrees and after every reconstructive surgery that invariably fell short. She held a prism to her own eye at the direction of a noted ophthalmologist and saw for herself the kaleidoscopic chaos that was Stéphanie’s vision. She’d accompanied Stéphanie for innumerable rounds of chemo and radiation treatments. She laughed at Stéphanie’s predictable joke about chemo having its upside and then saw the lost weight redoubled with each gallon of ice cream, every carton of junk food ordered online.
They did not return to the dharma gatherings. Ann went to church.
An avowed atheist, Ann was once a cranky non-believer who’d carried her atheism around like a sledgehammer until the argument was just too tiring. She’d begun, instead, to seek a quieter disaffection with religious belief. Stéphanie believed in God. She believed enough to be both angry and pleading for her life. Ann resisted comment on the late night TV miracle cures Stéphanie clung to: tiny bottles of holy water, prayer beads, money sent to histrionic Evangelical preachers. A solution that smelled very much like olive oil prompted Ann to suggest that Stéphanie was wasting her money. “You have the best surgeons in the country. God won’t help you with any of this.”
When Stéphanie lost sight in her left eye Ann read to her. They read in Stéphanie’s apartment until, at the urging of Stéphanie’s long time primary care doctor, Ann coaxed her into the sunlight on weekends. They’d started with the lighter fare of popular humorists until the jokes ran into each other. Stéphanie suggested Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War and they were delighted by a nod, acknowledged in passing, from the actor, Kevin Bacon, walking his dog in Central Park.
They’d read the slim volumes of a female Buddhist monk about what to do when things fall apart, or things scare you, and they tried to get their heads around starting where you are. Ann’s reading voice seemed to calm Stéphanie and they discussed meditation. This led them to the weekly dharma gatherings on 22nd street.
At the end of that summer Ann was the first to face a broad swing of the ax that severed her from her job and left her unemployable, at least at her former professional level. It wasn’t a surprise. Women in her department had been circling the drain for months prior to her layoff. The company was being restructured, which meant older women earning high salaries, in particular, were jettisoned. She’d joined, unenthusiastically, the freelance circus, only to have young clowns at the door dismiss her age and treat her accordingly, that is patronizingly or with undisguised rudeness. The industry was in free fall. Every revolution on the carousel spun her from one struggling magazine to another.
Lunchtime walks in the various neighborhoods solved multiple problems. Eating out was an avoidable expense. Usually there was a vest pocket park, at least, to pick a bench or café chair and eat lunch brought from home. She walked off her agitation with spikey self-absorbed art directors whose personalities were dictated by panoramic tattoos and capricious piercings. She jotted ideas for stories in the little spiral notebooks she had time for again. The first bad weather day drove her indoors, as it happened, to a church.
Ann found these churches, these quiet places, which were mostly empty, mostly undisturbed at midday. Where she felt the presence of her own unquiet mind ripple as over still water in ever widening circles until the tension disappeared at the horizon.
The neighborhood determined the visitors. Some pews held homeless men and women hunched over bulging plastic bags, willing invisibility. Other churches welcomed stout ladies in kerchiefs, singly or in mute pairs, fiddling their rosaries. Quiet, dark haired children with bowl cuts sat alongside mothers who spoke to them softly in Spanish.
A church in Times Square was the busiest and saw actor types curtsey theatrically in the aisle, while a businessmen dipped hurriedly onto another seat. Tourists wandered in clutching their guidebooks like bibles, but there was a noticeable absence of them in places like the Episcopal Church on East 29th Street.
Ann discovered the little church around the corner, as it was called, after a particularly aggravating morning tolerating the antics of a self-absorbed art director, an overwrought diva decades younger with none of her hard won experience. She left the office and wandered further downtown on Park Avenue South, turned aimlessly toward Madison Avenue and was surprised and enticed by the brick path winding through cultivated greenery and she escaped into a quietly unpretentious storybook chapel.
Then, Stéphanie lost her job. She’d lost the ability to control the pace when her reflexes failed her. No longer able to intimidate, she frankly scared her staff. An obdurate relationship with Human Resources had come to an end. The crushing defeat was palpable. After so many years of a threatened firing, she’d finally been defeated by a sweeping company lay off.
Freelance work dried up. Ann had more time for crowded doctors’ waiting rooms and impersonal labs. She sat with Stéphanie on hard plastic chairs in windowless government benefit offices. They made their case across institutional desks of harried employees who dutifully assessed Stéphanie’s disability.
Early movie show times preempted Stéphanie’s increasingly mercurial relationship with the public. They settled in the nearly empty darkened theater, still too soon even for the gunboat of popcorn Stéphanie required. They watched as the White Queen theorized wistfully to Alice. Her sister’s demented behavior, she said, and her large head, might be because of a tumor pressing against the Red Queen’s brain. Stéphanie groped for Ann’s hand and gripped it with impossible force. “I love you,” she whispered. “I know,” Ann said.
Stéphanie’s gait was increasingly unstable and she canted like an overburdened mule on uneven cobblestones. Steroids were prescribed. When both weather and mood lightened they ventured from the apartment and teetered in sync along a steep path to the Hudson River. The walker the doctor had urged Stéphanie to purchase—for the good of both of them—met Stéphanie’s rage, and its fate, at the bottom of the lobby stairs. On Stéphanie’s really bad days they remained indoors and turned to Emily Dickinson: “To fight aloud is very brave….”
After so many stops and starts over the years, Stéphanie’s condition deteriorated alarmingly. Bruised evidence of her falls appeared all over her body like Rorschach tests. At Stéphanie’s now desperate urging they explored alternative therapies. In an expensively appointed office awash in fleshy pink hues they met with a follower of a famously unconventional cancer researcher and therapist. He informed her immediately that her tumor was not cancer. Ann bit her tongue. Apprised of Stéphanie’s former profession, he reached into his drawer and drew out a manuscript, as a jeweler would a rare diamond. Would she give him advice on his first novel? Ann hustled her foul-mouthed friend from his office and left him to his stupefaction.
“I want to die,” she’d say. “Kill me.”
“I can’t do that,” Ann insisted. “You can’t ask a friend to do that.”
“I don’t have friends anymore, except you.”
As quickly as the meningioma reclaimed the 90% removed from her brain at the last surgery, their world shrunk to the far west side neighborhood of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. Ann found relief inside the grand Gothic Revival of St. Paul the Apostle, which was a short walk from the hospital, and waited while Stéphanie endured now weekly blood tests to check white and red blood cell counts. MRIs increased. A full body PET scan was ordered. Dr. Hunter conducted the highly experimental drug trials that were like a chair offered to a worn out person and then pulled from beneath her, again and again and again.
Ann was not a sentimentalist. She rarely had an emotional reaction even to Stéphanie’s increasingly dismal outcome. God may have crossed her mind now and then, when she’d heard other people’s reactions to cataclysmic events like fires and floods and earthquakes.
“If God brings you to it he will bring you through it.”
Ann welcomed the brief escapes into the increasingly familiar surroundings of St. Paul: Ornate altars, brightly painted, sweeping archways beneath lofty cathedral ceilings, a massive, gilt-edged bible open upon an oaken pulpit, murals of the history of the faithful hung from the marble walls. Sometimes she would leave her seat at the back and wander along a row of silent confessionals. Organ pipes rose like some mutated coral from a biblical sea. She marveled at the deceptive scale of stained glass windows looming high above the congregation. Polished stone floors reflected the sweep upward and made her feel like she was walking somewhere between heaven and earth. Tiers of candles, like piano keys, some burning with an ivory white light, others still darkened and waiting to be played. The outstretched arms of the figure of Christ, perpetually crucified, held her gaze.
Surrounded as she was by the clues of a deity, Ann found only the absence of the outside world, a respite from hospitals and waiting rooms, from tentative replies that it was difficult to “tease out” what caused the changes in Stéphanie’s equilibrium.
At what turned out to be the last office visit with Stéphanie’s oncologist, Dr. Hunter strongly urged her to break what she called a vicious cycle. If cooking for herself had become an insurmountable chore, enlist more friends to prepare meals, to shop for her. To be self-immured was no longer an option. She had been lucky and now Dr. Hunter recommended “fun.” They listened and left quietly. Both knew what that meant.
“Fuck lucky,” said Stéphanie.
Stéphanie surrendered her e-mail addresses to Ann. It was a formidable list. “They won’t respond,” Stéphanie predicted gloomily.
“We can only try,” said Ann.
Ann was stunned by the return on her enquiry. Friends responded like the ex-communicated welcomed back into the fold, their sins forgiven. Many had friendships with Stéphanie that reached back years.
“We’ve been in school together probably since 1st grade!”
“I am an old friend of Stéphanie’s. Stuck in a remote part of Italy. Please tell her I’ll see her as soon as I get back and will help in anyway I can.”
“She never returned my calls. I had very nearly given up.”
“It’s been extremely difficult for years. I feel guilty that I should have done more for her. I feel I so terribly let her down and wasn’t a good enough friend.”
Some had suffered her tantrums unaware of her condition. Others took her word that she was busy all the time. Still others knew and remained steadfast, but at the arm’s length Stéphanie had thrust at them.
Ann did her best to staunch the bleeding.
More names were made known to Ann, even former lovers, and she continued to reach out. They joined forces, putting aside arguments, hurt feelings, eager to make up for lost time. They shopped and cooked for her in turns. Ann answered their myriad questions as best she could and organized visits. Stéphanie basked in their attention.
“Dear Ann,” Stéphanie wrote, “There’s no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather.”
The e-mail arrived in the dead of night. Ann wasted no time and contacted Dr. Hunter. Within the hour Stéphanie was admitted to St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.
Friends and family visited Stéphanie. Some offered reiki, some read to her. They rubbed lotion into her hands and feet. They kept her lips moistened. Prayers were offered.
Stéphanie’s speech became greatly impaired. She was disoriented from the morphine. She was moving toward the inevitable, leaving by degrees.
On the day the feeding tube was ordered removed by her family, Ann was granted a few moments alone with her friend. Suddenly Stéphanie’s hand, now ringless, gripped Ann’s with the same force she had shown in the movie theater. Her eyes darted back and forth. She made a gurgling sound and Ann leaned in close to her.
“This sucks,” she heard.
Ann shook her head in agreement.
“Writing?” Stéphanie rasped.
Ann was taken aback. “Yes,” she replied.
Ann bit her lip, fighting tears. She squeezed Stéphanie’s hand gently and stroked her hair.
“My story is as long as it needs to be,” she said quietly.
Stéphanie’s eyelids fluttered, two delicate butterflies willing escape. She bared her teeth and flashed a rictus grin.
Ann left the hospital feeling unnaturally calm. At the great church she started up the stairs, wavered, and returned to the street. No, she didn’t need this. She would go home now and she would write.
For V.V., who taught me so much.
“We die only once and for such a long time.” Moliere
THE CHURCHGOER is an original short story by Linda Danz
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299